Technology, Work Patterns & The End of Peak Hours
14 March 2016

Technology, Work Patterns & The End of Peak Hours

For decades, work meant that part of the day from 9 to 5 spent in an office, industry, school, or any other place. Bottomline, it was those hours when people needed to be somewhere to perform their job, usually at the same time. And because of that, trips to and from work were slow and long on congested roads and crowded buses and trains.

Urban dwellers had two certainties in life. One was death and the other was congestion. Then, in the last decade, the internet and mobile technologies rapidly started changing this notion, and this work paradigm began to fade. And with it, so did the notion of peak hours.

Peak hours, in the morning and evenings, have represented for transport planning purposes, the times where most people travel, when demand exceeds the supply. They typically consist of utility trips: to work or school. In developing countries, they comprise the majority of trips, usually around 80% of the total. Hence, it is not rocket science to understand the relationship between work patterns and peak hours. If most people start and finish work at the same time, there will be a saturation in transport demand (over optimal) around those hours, followed by a low demand (sub optimal) outside the peak. This inefficiency, although reflected in transport, could not be solved within transport itself, as it is caused by social activities happening simultaneously and requiring physical movement.

Once people change their work patterns, it directly influences the occurrence and duration of peak hours. When the internet turned ubiquitous and mobile technology became widely available, work patterns changed dramatically. It is not uncommon for people to work from home once or several times a week, and for people to commute and work at flexible times outside 9 to 5. The growth in the creative economy, together with technological development, and perhaps also slightly induced by heavy traffic and long commutes, will create a new work paradigm, of every-time availability and anytime productivity.

Consequently, peak hours tend to disappear in a more efficient distribution of transport demand when technology allows workers to be more flexible. As people are not bound to follow a ’default’ work pattern, trips are likely to be spread throughout the day instead of short peaks in certain times. The person writing this is an example of the change in travel patterns. I usually do my groceries in the afternoon and most of my work at night. Thus, peak hours do not match my activities and my schedule avoids peak hours. In return, it is one less person on the road or public transport contributing to congestion or crowding.

Working anytime and anywhere is not a prediction anymore. It is a trend for the era of information that is beginning now. We still face congestion during peak hours because so far only a small part of the population has changed their work patterns. In the UK, they account for 13% of the workforce. However, when a larger number of people become more flexible in their work patterns, technology in transport will be able to optimise supply and demand even more. Real-time data collection and online communication will be able to nudge users for better schedules. A simple illustration is an app showing the occupancy in streets, buses or trains, so users can check the best time to leave home. Since their schedules tend to be more flexible, the information provided from transport providers can generate a higher percentage of adaptations, consequently keeping supply and demand constantly balanced. Then, peak hours will be items of history books.

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